Top 10 Episodes Of Community's Dan Harmon Era.
Somehow, we did it, fellow Community fans. We made it to a fourth season. Our favorite study group is going to graduate.
Yet, it seems many Human Beings have an empty feeling. NBC’s renewal was a bit of a hollow victory. For one thing, the new season will be abbreviated. The 13 episode pickup means the fourth season, barring an unlikely further pickup in the spring, will be about half as long as the previous three.
Yet by far the biggest blow is the one that has fans wondering if it’s even worth it, is the expulsion of Dan Harmon. The show’s creator was axed. Community’s study group was modeled after a real one Harmon was in when he attended community college. He was the voice of the show, the heart and soul of Greendale – Every significant creative stroke of the show thus far can be attributed to his imagination.
So, will the show be worth watching without him at the helm? I’m not sure. Community fans will likely never agree on the issue, even if this season is completely charming. And I’m not going to try and provide a definitive answer. Instead, I’m going to honor the world that Harmon and co. built. I want to take a look at what got us here, why so many of us are so invested in this show. What has been so utterly original and engaging about Community? Why, even after all of its gimmick episodes and pop culture references, is it a show with deep-seated compassion and humanity?
As an attempt to answer these and other lurking questions, I’m going to countdown the episodes that best define the unique strengths of this strange little sitcom we’ve come to love. Here are the top 10 Community episodes of the Harmon era.
10. "Pilot" (1.01)
Community’s first episode is undeniably a bit rough around the edges. The Professor Duncan material doesn’t fit the vibe the show would develop over time and the characters quickly grow out of their initial beats. But it’s still brilliant. Jeff’s silver tongue steals the show, and Harmon outlines some important themes of the show: the link between helping each other and helping yourself, the difficulty of moving on from the past, and the challenge in accepting that you are no more significant than the people that surround you. Plus, it has Abed quoting The Breakfast Club and Troy making a joke about “ass burgers,” so it can’t be bad.
If you watch the pilot and Dan Harmon’s last episode in succession, it’s clear that Community evolved in all of the right ways. You see the things that changed about Community in three years: Its growing absurdity and more ambitious homages. Jeff has developed enormously. He’s working hard on his school work (a major 180 from the pilot), and this time he means it when he admits that he cares about the study group.
You also see the things that have stayed the same. The show’s characters still struggle with their former identities. The laughs and character development flourish with whip-smart writing. And, most importantly, the show’s core thesis resonates: we all need to conquer our past demons; we all have a responsibility to the community around us.
Dan Harmon offers as his parting shot: “The pathetically, stupidly, inconveniently obvious truth is: Helping only ourselves is bad, and helping each other is good.” Harmon, out.
8. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (2.16)
Community is well-known for its “concept episodes.” Whether it’s spoofing the style of a specific film or TV genre, or rigidly sticking to some unconventional structure: Community at its most ambitious is like no other sitcom on TV.
The success rate of these concept episodes is a bit mixed; duds like “Basic Rocket Science” (2.04) overemphasize the style and structure in place of genuine character growth. But when the concept episodes hit, they’re usually home runs.
Case in point, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking.” This episode spoofs the mockumentary format used by Modern Family, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and The Office. Even as “Filmmaking” deconstructs the tropes of the style, it uses the strengths of the style to tell a funny and emotional story. All of the important beats of mockumentary television – from talking heads to voyeuristic camera angles to little moments of breaking the fourth wall – are executed perfectly. Credit director Joe Russo, who knows the format; he directed some of the best Arrested Development episodes.
One staple of the long-running sitcom is the clip show. Give fans a very slight story in which characters think back on past events, edit in some good moments from past episodes, and call it an episode. Community could never top The Simpsons’ repeated evisceration of the clip episode format, so it didn’t try. Instead, it did us one better: It gave us a fake clip episode, where all the clips were new footage.
The central joke of the episode – that the most exciting stuff the study group has been a part of has happened off screen, and we’ve seen the boring bits in between – escalates to hilarious extremes (e.g. the group ends up in an insane asylum). The novelty of cutting from one fake clip to the next doesn’t sacrifice compelling character work. The episode reflects on the ways the characters grew during the second season, pays off on the ongoing hints of a secret Jeff-Britta romance and skewers Jeff’s proclivity for inspiring speeches.
6. "Mixology Certification" (2.10)
“This was one of our darker chapters,” Abed notes at the end of the episode. It’s true: This is probably the least funny episode of Community, and it’s also one of the finest. On Troy’s 21st birthday, the study group makes a trip to a bar, where every character faces their own dark demon. Abed can’t connect with other people; Jeff is proud and stubborn; Britta fakes her “authenticity”; Shirley is a reformed alcoholic, ashamed of her past; Annie overcompensates for her high school burnout; and Pierce, injured, old, and broken down, can’t even get inside the bar.
Troy’s birthday bash is less the wild rave that the study group initial conceives, and more a lesson: growing up is little more than making a mutual agreement with society that we all pretend we have the answers about what’s important in life. Being older doesn’t give you character. In fact, some times the youngest of us (here, Troy in a sweet final scene outside Annie’s apartment) have our heads screwed on tightest.
The most tightly-constructed sitcom episode ever made, “Remedial Chaos Theory” features seven separate timelines in 22 brisk minutes. It’s funny, satisfying, and extremely clever. Each timeline operates with one member missing, and so we get to see not only how the dynamic of the group changes with that person gone, but how the group views each member. Thus, it serves not only as compelling comedy (culminating, of course, in “the darkest timeline” when Troy leaves the room), but as a character study.
In the final timeline, Jeff leaves the room and the group ends up dancing around to “Roxanne”. He not only holds the group back – sucking the joy and free spirit of the group with his judgmental attitude and self-absorption – but he glues them together. They need Jeff to stay focused and grow as people.
They advertised it as the “Pulp Fiction Episode” of Community. I expected, as I’m sure did most fans, a Chuck Berry dance scene, a “Royale with cheese” spoof, and Pierce dressed as the gimp. (Well, at least we got one of those three.)
Instead, we were given a strange, subtle episode that peaks with a 170-second speech by Abed about a trip to the set of Cougar Town. That monologue is a downright masterpiece of television writing, both in how riveting it is and how its silly twist (“I pooped my pants”) doesn’t feel remotely out of place.
And then, just as the episode seemed to be developing as a breakthrough episode for Abed, we realize that Abed wasn’t truly connecting with Jeff (or the audience), he was simply living out a My Dinner with Andre fantasy where he pretends to connect. It’s a subtle distinction, sure. But it’s the kind of distinction that shows how Community, at its best, can be a profound meditation on how humans filter their humanity through a media-constructed reality.
3. "Physical Education" (1.17)
The episodes of Community that buzz the blogosphere are usually the “concept episodes” – whether it’s “Epidemiology” (2.06), which depicts a zombie breakout, or “Regional Holiday Music” (3.10), the musical episode. And yet, there are ample reminders (particularly towards the end of the first season) that Community could be great in conventional sitcom terms. Take “Physical Education”, perhaps the funniest episode the show has aired.
While it has its share of pop culture references (Abed doing a Don Draper impression; a deconstruction of the homoeroticism latent in sports movies), it operates like most TV comedies do: telling good jokes with good plot, good characters, and a good underlying moral. The sheer energy and joy of each of its three acts elevates this episode as a single-camera sitcom of the finest vintage. It allows the theme of the episode – that we’re most happy when aren’t worrying about how others judge us – to resonate. It also reminds us that the engine that runs Community is not novelty, not clever pop culture savvy, but good, old-fashioned television craft.
2. "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" (2.14)
The episode intro implies a Lord of the Rings spoof. Instead, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” plays out as a bottle episode with few stylistic touches beyond the epic score by Ludwig Goransson, some slow-mo, and some voiceover work. The characters, though they are in their study room, are a bit out of their comfort zone as they sit down together to role-play.
This brings out the extremes of many of the characters, especially Pierce, who emerges as a villain. And so we, along with the rest of the study group, face up to the fact that Pierce is the oddest man out of a group of odd men out; he’s abrasive and bitter, and his loneliness comes out as anger. One strange element of the episode is that Fat Neil, who we never knew before this episode, plays such a central role. But as the straight man of the episode, he works well, because he (and Dungeons and Dragons) bring out interesting elements in each character. Like Frodo, he bears the burden of the study group fellowship.
It’s hard to disagree with Fat Neil’s episode-ending assessment: “That was the best game I ever played in my life.” Huzzah!
1. Modern Warfare (1.23)
Back before “concept episodes” were a Community thing, the show wowed us with the best concept episode it would ever air. The production of “Modern Warfare” is at an almost cinematic level as the cast and crew recreate the feel and the specific beats of apocalyptic action movies and thrillers.
It’s the prototype concept episode because it’s the first one. The writers and characters aren’t quite sure how to respond to going in and out of the episode’s stylized reality. It’s also the quintessential concept episode; the escalated reality allows characters to act in ways that are extreme but not unrealistic. It’s that commitment to staying within the reality of the characters – if on the edge of the warning track – that escalates “Modern Warfare” from entertaining exercise to the apex of a culture-savvy ensemble comedy.
The parodies and beats are hysterical (Senor Chang as a Triad gangster almost steals the show), but the twists within the study group – most memorably a long-awaited hookup in the show’s second act – are the highlight. It was stunning at its release, winning Time Magazine’s TV episode of the year, and it remains the best episode of Community.
So, Human Beings, which episodes did I miss? Should the western episode (“A Fistful of Paintballs,” 2.23) or the Civil War episode (“Pillows and Blankets,” 3.14) have made the cut? Does the introduction of Annie’s Boobs alone in “Contemporary American Poultry” warrant inclusion?
Hit me up in the comments with your personal faves. Read more by Dan Stalcup at his website, EarnThis.Net.
It's so hard to rank a top ten list of Community; this show is just that awesome. (In this fourth season, however, I've not laughed nearly as much.) But I can only agree with "Remedial Chaos Theory" as one of the ten best that you have offered, and furthermore, I would promote it to #3.
Here are all my favorites, in ascending order:
10. "Debate 109"
9. "Intro to Political Science"
8. "Geography of Global Conflict"
7. "Advanced Gay"
6. "Comparative Religion"
5. "Curriculum Unavailable"
4. "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples"
3. "Remedial Chaos Theory"
2. "The Psychology of Letting Go"
1. "Contemporary American Poultry"
I really liked the episode where annie loses her pen and the conspiracy episode